I’m sitting quietly on the front porch when I hear a subtle rushing sound from far away. Everything near me is utterly still, but I know the wind is building, brushing through distant trees, moving toward me like a train heading for a station. All at once, everything starts to dance—the spruce trees sway, the aspen leaves rattle, my ears become coils of twisting air—until the wind moves on and I’m left wondering what exactly it was that touched me.
Very little about this year’s trip was what we planned. Something seemed off-kilter from the start. When Stewart went north and I stayed home to button things up before beginning my own journey, I had a feeling like waiting for the wind. I paused in oddly still places within myself, listening as though something was approaching from an unknown distance. It was so disconcerting that I wrote about it at the time, and mentioned it to people: What is this apprehension? Is something big about to happen or am I imagining stuff?
For one thing, I was certain that something around the house would break and I would have to rush around to fix it. I was relieved when the water heater went bad. I thought, well, that’s it then—now I can relax. But I didn’t relax. It took all those tries just to get out of the house, and I labored with a weird sense that something was pushing against my best attempts to move forward. I leaned into that resistance every day, all the way to Canada, when my mom called and I rushed back home for Jay—the father who adopted me when he married my mom and then raised me with a love that had no shadow of “step” about it. Flying home was a slingshot thing, like I’d strained the rubber strap to its maximum point and was now being hurtled, shot like an unthinking stone, straight to the place I needed to be.
My mom and I, our family, our friends, stayed by Jay’s side for ten days while he died. It’s too soon to say much about that, and perhaps this won’t ever be the place. But I need to say I’ve never known someone so kind, or so gentle, or so steady as was Jay. He was funny, too, in the way our little family is. When he eased out of life, we were gathered around his hospice bed in my parents’ living room, musing about people who have momentarily died and come back, how they describe floating above their own body, looking down upon the scene. We looked up to talk to Jay in case he was going out that way and my mom told him, “Watch out for the ceiling fan.” That humor tells me we’re somehow going to be okay, despite the enormous Jay-sized hole in our world right now.
That hushed thing I sensed moving toward me when I was alone at home, packing to leave and waiting for something to break? It surely felt like loss. I tried to tell myself it was not a premonition but merely memory, because these Alaska trips have been bordered by death in the past. One year, in August, it was my grandfather, and then just a few years ago my biological dad died shortly after I got home.
Still, I wasn’t convinced. I found myself taking quiet stock of my loved ones, noting the fulcrum of life, the perfect, tender and temporary balancing point wherein everyone was still accounted for—Stewart, Jay, my mom, beloved friends and animals—all arrayed in their known places in the world and well. It was a grateful moment, looking around, as into the distant trees, knowing at any time we could start shaking or be shattered.
All the time with Jay, it helped me to think of Stewart at the cabin, and I periodically saw myself lying down in the great silence on the tundra, with the wide blue sky stretched out above me and the sun on my face. When Jay died, everyone agreed I should head north to have what time I could at the cabin with Stewart. We were out there together for as long as we could be, a little more than a week before the park road closed and the helicopters stopped flying.
Now we’re back in Fairbanks, staying with friends and preparing to head back to California. This year we made a fun and fairly corny video tour of the cabin and our property, which we hope to share with you in the next few days.